Out Front

Social Media’s Threat to Law Enforcement
By Demetrick Pennie, M.A., Ed.D.

In 2016, while researching the influences of social media on the emergence of radicalized groups in America, I noticed empirical trends in how Facebook, Google and Twitter were being used to incite violence against police and how extremist messages promoting violence against police were not being censored by the social media platforms – instead, the companies allowed the threatening content to remain online and proliferate across platforms even after it had been reported several times. Though legislators acknowledged that the content posed a threat to homeland security interests, many ignored the complaints because their political campaigns were funded by the platforms.

Following the 2016 shooting attack in Dallas, Texas that claimed the lives of five police officers, I filed a federal lawsuit in January of 2017 against Facebook, Google and Twitter to publicly bring attention to the illegality and mismanagement of the social media platforms. Despite the companies admitting during trial that they knew that their platforms were being misused by nefarious groups, in December of 2017 the Court dismissed the case on grounds of causation. Regardless of the outcome in the case, it effectively put the companies on notice that their negligence was not being obscured from public consciousness, especially considering that some of the companies’ executives arrogantly touted false claims about blocking 90% of illicit content on their platforms – a fact proven invalid by New York-based cyber-intelligence company, GIPEC.

It’s been nearly two years since the Dallas attack, but unfortunately the lessons of social media radicalization against police still have not been learned and no progress has been made in terms of forcing these “publicly-traded” companies to appropriately manage their platforms. Over the last decade, corresponding with the advent of social media, anti-police sentiment has augmented the indoctrination of cultural dissonance against governmental authority.

Additionally, the lack of respect for the “rule of law” coupled with the broader paradigm of unaccountability has empowered criminals to openly violate the law using the social media platforms without fear of prosecution. As social media programming on Facebook, Google and Twitter has advanced over the years, the criminals have aligned their illegal activities with the changes in technology – hence giving the rise of illegal online drug markets, counterfeit products, piracy, spying and the promotion of pedophilia and terrorism. Although these problems have been met with harsh criticism over the past few months, America still lags in its ability to prosecute, condemn and regulate activities on social media because of politics and outdated legislation offering broad immunity to the social media companies, such as Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

The past year has been marred in controversy surrounding the nefarious activities of the social media companies – Facebook, Google and Twitter executives have been called before Senate Intelligence Committees several times for violations including the Cambridge Analytics and Russian interference scandal, but Congress remains inept in its ability to pass regulatory legislation to protect America’ homeland security interests from the impending threats of social media. As indicated by the testimony given during the hearings, it is obvious that members of Congress do not fully comprehend the magnitude of the social media threat; therefore, Congressional members are willing to concede to the status quo as opposed to threatening sanctions like the United Kingdom. Likewise, the Courts have been reluctant to condemn the actions of the social media companies to avoid creating legal precedence on an issue that Congress should be legislating. This mutual indifference places law enforcement agencies at a disadvantage in mitigating radicalized uprisings. For example, because law enforcement agencies have no way to quell salacious stories on social media immediately after police-involved shootings, they are often forced to spend most of their time establishing public legitimacy than focusing on the details of the shooting investigation.

Based on the callous-nature of the social media companies, it is imperative for law enforcement agencies to demand greater accountability from legislators in forcing social media companies to report criminal behaviors that violate public decency and/or that pose a threat to homeland security. Currently, there are no legal mandates requiring the social media companies to cooperate, which places all Americans at risk for radicalized attacks. In recent mass-shooting incidents, the attackers announced their intentions on social media, but none of the pre-attack behaviors were ever reported to law enforcement for intervention. This negligence cannot persist because it threatens the stability of our democracy. It’s time for law enforcement to take a leading role in calling for necessary change because they are most at risk.

Demetrick Pennie, Ed.D., is a 19-year veteran Dallas police sergeant. He is the president of the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation and the executive director of the Texas Fallen Officer Foundation. He is a Doctor of Education and has facilitated college courses on the following topics: Terrorism, Ethics, Criminal Law and Justice, and Cultural diversity.